September 20, 2022 - 10:15am

As President Xi Jinping heads into the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress in a month’s time, he is all but guaranteed to win an unprecedented third term as Party leader. Nonetheless there are headwinds: an economic slowdown, a housing crisis, and the uncompromising zero-Covid policy that is still blocking a recovery. But one less explored challenge for the unelected leader is the country’s youth, which is having something of an existential crisis.

Over 200 million people across China are still in some form of lockdown; businesses are in decline, and lives are being ruined. Jinping is showing no sign of changing course, and unsurprisingly, anger is growing, not least because the draconian solutions aren’t working.

Frustration among the educated urban youth is especially palpable. China’s National Bureau of Statistics puts youth unemployment rate at 20% while eleven million graduates from China’s universities have seen their earning power shrink over the last two years. Younger generations are losing interest in a university education because it no longer provides a guarantee of a decent job and better wages.

One response has been to try to escape the country. Immediately after the three-month Shanghai lockdown ended, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees spoke of a potentially “great exodus” from China as around 600,000 applied to emigrate. The fact that this desire to leave has not been realised, given China’s strict monitoring and restrictions on travel, has only increased despondency. So young people are turning to a different form of protest.

The Tang ping (lying flat) movement started, as most protests do in China, on social media. In a post by Luo Huazhong (an ex-factory worker who quit his job to cycle around China picking up casual labour and finding fulfilment in an itinerant lifestyle) he revelled in his disengagement from the rat-race. He refused be exploited. His original manifesto began: “Lying down is my wise movement. Only by lying down can humans become the measure of all things.”

Tang ping is just one example of the growing countercultural dissatisfaction with the failure of the Party to deliver. It is a passive resistance to the aims of national recovery, but more significantly, the autonomous non-cooperation exemplified in tang ping is a direct challenge to the central authority of the state. After all, the Party requires social compliance for its existence. The state news agency, Xinhua, says that “choosing to ‘lie flat’ in the face of pressure is not only unjust, but also shameful.”

Refusal to engage in the “great rejuvenation of China’s civilisation” poses a major challenge to Xi Jinping’s essential drive for development. It needs people to consume in order to reinvigorate the economy after Covid. He needs to look strong on the world’s stage. He can do without an army of conscientious objectors.

Can Xi Jinping convince the nation’s youth to participate in the next phase of the Chinese experiment, or will he need to force them? This dilemma is the last thing that Xi Jinping needs as he begins his next — and probably his final — five-year term.

Austin Williams is the author of “China’s Urban Revolution” and director of the Future Cities Project. He is course leader at Kingston School of Art.